Taking the iPad Pill

Watching The Matrix on Apple’s new rectangle.

Should movie fans invest in iPads?

After Slate decided to spring for an iPad for the office, my editor suggested that I write about what it was like to watch a movie on the device: neither a tech review nor a movie review but an assessment of the total viewing experience. For 24 precious hours I would be in possession of the much-ballyhooed rectangle, which made for a smug subway ride home. It was like having the Ark of the Covenant in my backpack. Thirty-six hours later—because of the events described below, I needed an extension—I’m satisfied, like Indiana Jones at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, to let the Ark lie forevermore untouched. The iPad melted my face off, and not, for the most part, in a good way.

A couple of points: I’m neither a whiz nor an ignoramus when it comes to computers, but I’m a reasonably proficient and enthusiastic Mac user who happily incorporated an iPhone into my life last year. I don’t really see the point of buying a third screen just for entertainment purposes but was open to the prospect of being seduced. And, especially after a maddening out-of-box iPad failure on this week’s Slate Culture Gabfest, I’m envious of the tactile, intuitive experience that ecstatic tech writers and resourceful 2-year-olds seem to be sharing during this first week after the product’s release.

Part 1: Picking the Movie
A lot of thoughtwent into which movie to choose for the experiment. It had to meet a few criteria: It should be a well-known film, so that when I described the look of a given scene or image it would be familiar to many readers. The movie should be something visually impressive, the kind of film about which people might say, “Oh, you really have to see that on the big screen.” And it would be nice if the content of the movie related to what I imagined the experience of iPad-watching would be like: something immersive and transformational, a journey into the unknown. My first choice was Apocalypse Now, but it’s not available from iTunes.

This brings me to my first point about the iPad itself: It’s a proprietary device, one that syncs to your computer through iTunes and uses that interface for much of its content. There are other possible sources for movies, of course (like Netflix Streaming or Amazon Video on Demand, neither of which offers Apocalypse Now), and if you’re a tech-savvy scofflaw, there’s the wide world of torrents. But for the most part, to watch a movie on the iPad is to engage with the experience of buying and downloading a product online. Since the device has no external DVD drive, it can’t serve as a simple spindle onto which you pop whatever film you feel like watching. (In 10 years, this complaint may sound like someone pining for a VCR player, but a lot of people’s at-home watching is still largely DVD-based: purchased movies, Netflix or other rentals, and, in my case, press screeners for upcoming films.)

Part 2: Getting the Movie
With Apocalypse Now ruled out as an option, I decided to go with The Matrix. There was something appealing about the idea of using the iPad as my means of accompanying Neo down his perceptual rabbit hole. Unfortunately I was soon tumbling down a vortex of a more boring variety: after renting the movie through iTunes, I found my iTunes library empty, with no sign of any transaction. Yet when I tried to rent the movie again, the iTunes store told me I already had it. Did I suddenly not know my way around the iTunes interface I’ve been using for the better part of a decade? A call to Apple help (with multiple holds while the agent consulted with his supervisor) brought no answer. No one knew why The Matrix was failing to show up in my library, but they agreed to reimburse my account for the film, and I rented it again.

Another hour of download time, with the same result: no movie in iTunes. Another call to the Applecare line, with multiple holds. Finally, the second customer-service agent handed me over to her supervisor, who told me that movies rented on the iPad reside not in the iTunes library, with the music, podcasts, and audio books (as would be the case with any other Apple computer) but in a separate location labeled “videos.” Only one of the four tech support people I spoke with over the course of an hour knew this fact. Something to consider if you’re lusting for a first-generation iPad: given the newness of the product, few people in Apple customer service have any idea how to answer questions about it, and (presumably because of its vaunted intuitiveness of use) it doesn’t come with a manual.

Part 3: Watching the Movie
After three combined hours of downloads and customer service calls, I settled down on the couch with the device in my lap. Following Morpheus’ advice to “free your mind,” I tried to forget about the delivery medium and just get lost in the movie. And for the most part, it worked. It would take a lot more than a few tech holdups to mitigate The Matrix’s awesomeness.

If you’re watching in a room with any natural light, you’ll need an economy bottle of iKlear and a chamois; the super-glossy screen shows every smudge and fingerprint. When the image onscreen is dark-colored, as it often is in The Matrix, you get very familiar with the reflection of your own staring mug. In a dark room, though, everything changes: The schmutz on the screen becomes invisible, and the image looks crisp and deep. The iPad seems particularly well-suited to rendering black, reflective surfaces: It’s the best thing to happen to Carrie-Anne Moss’s vinyl cat suit since Carrie-Anne Moss.

If you care a lot about image fidelity in your lap-based film viewing, the distinction between the quality of the iPad and a laptop may be a selling point in itself. But the main advantage the device offers the movie-watcher is portability. Holding it against your knees while stretched out on the couch feels about the same as holding a hardback book, and, like a book, it quickly disappears from your consciousness as a physical object. If you want to get up and head to the kitchen for a cup of coffee, it’s easy to tote your movie along in one hand. But the iPad’s book-ness can be a downside, too: If you want to keep watching while doing something with your hands, like eating, you have to prop it up. (At one point, I found myself propping the thing against my open MacBook, proving that the laptop format still has its advantages.)

In an ideal world, all movies would be watched in a state of Zen-like, spoon-bending focus, but the truth is that home viewing is often part of a continuum of multitasking, a practice the iPad doesn’t allow for. In order to take notes on the movie while watching it—a feature that, granted, may be of more use to a movie critic than to the average consumer—I had to prop the iPad on the coffee table against a pile of books while typing on my laptop. And in order to send an e-mail or surf the Web while the movie was playing, I had to pause it and exit the “videos” application altogether. I wish I could say that this constraint forced me to enter a realm of pure sacramental cinephilia, but the reality is that there were a lot of stoppages to attend to one Web-based task or another.

The main reason I won’t be buying an iPad for the purposes of home movie-watching has nothing to do with the comparative quality of iPads and laptops. I just don’t like watching movies on computers that much. No lap-based home viewing experience can compare with the comfort of flopping on the couch, hands free, and watching a movie—any movie, not just those available in iTunes—on the larger surface of a TV screen. For watching outside the house—on a plane, say, or in a coffee shop—an iPad’s portability would be nice, but between the propping problem and the distractingly reflective screen, I’d just as soon use my laptop. But there’s one place you can watch a movie without worrying about propping, or smudges, or the attention-fragmenting presence of the Internet. It’s called a theater, and Steve Jobs hasn’t improved on it yet.

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